Skip to content

Therapeutic Theater: A Different Form of Stage Adaptation

Accessibility in the arts inspires growth — and requires volunteers
Photo: TKO Images

Thirty-one years of ambitious schedules and devoted team members have grown North Texas Performing Arts (NTPA) into the largest youth-dedicated theater program in the nation. Headquartered in Plano, Texas, NTPA offers a range of immersive programs for all ages across its five locations. It is no surprise that they hold 170 performances per year, ensuring that every minute counts.

NTPA believes that anyone who is interested in theater, regardless of age, background, or cognitive and physical abilities, should experience it. One of their programs that exemplifies this is Starcatchers, where children and adults with disabilities can find accessible classes and productions that adapt to their interests in the arts.

“Our vision is that every child should have the opportunity to take the stage,” NTPA’s CEO, Darrell Rodenbaugh, told Local Profile. “We believe that there is a profound impact when a child has their voice heard in front of an audience. They walk a little taller, there’s a confidence there.”

Volunteers called “performance partners” work closely with students to develop strategies. Even students who are unable to read can learn their dialogue with workarounds. Partners will record audio of themselves saying the lines and then ask their students to replay that until it is memorized. 

Photo: TKO Images

“It’s not rare for performance partners to come to me with pretty revolutionary ideas that kind of change how we do things,” said Riley Graygrove, Starcatchers managing director.

Graygrove coincidentally landed her position at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020. She was instantly tasked with redirecting classes and stage productions into virtual experiences through conference calls on Zoom. “It was a lot of trying to get my students to rethink and change their cognitive patterns to understand that when your camera is on or off, that’s just like coming on and off stage,” said Graygrove.

Impressively, Starcatchers performed seven online shows before returning to in-person classes in 2021. It was difficult territory because each student utilizes a specific technique to learn their role. However, the bridge to connecting these needs has always been the performance partners.

When a production of Everything the Light Touches called for a thunderstorm sequence, the team had to find a creative replacement for lightning, as flashing lights can trigger seizures. Instead, a performance partner suggested that students could quickly turn their cameras on and off to simulate the storm. 

Students with memory disorders have the option to disguise their scripts as props. In one production, baseball cards were altered for an athletic character, becoming an organic element in the narrative.

The creation of these resourceful props, sets, and costumes is also thanks to volunteer assistance. Across all of its programs, NTPA relies on its crew of determined volunteers to maintain efficiency. In fact, even Rodenbaugh is a volunteer.

Rodenbaugh emphasizes that “the key to [them] is every child” meaning that they also create accessibility by bringing the arts to socioeconomically challenged areas. Last year, NTPA gave $300,000 worth of scholarships to youth in underserved communities.

Starcatchers strives to continue expanding and every new volunteer creates an opportunity for more resources. Thankfully, volunteers are not restricted to just those with ample free time. Graygrove says that the minimum amount of help that someone can offer is two hours per month on a Saturday. Anyone who prefers a weekday and has an hour to spare each week might be interested in assisting with evening classes instead.

Graygrove encourages everyone to attend a performance and see the students in action. She finds that after viewing a show, audience members are always eager to become involved.

Theater education is a proven form of therapy. Graygrove notes that several students who began their introduction to theater as shy and unwilling have transformed dramatically. She has witnessed students take command of the stage and task themselves with supporting fellow castmates. Graygrove specifically recalls one student named Aniah, who evolved into a star after connecting with stage combat choreography during a summer camp.

“This was something that resonated with her,” said Graygrove. “Over the course of a year I saw her go from incredibly shy to … Now I want lines, now I want to be heard. … I am not only a lead on stage, but I am also a lead amongst my peers.”

For some students, the ability to deliver one line on cue has marked equally meaningful progress. Reciting that same line might have been a troubling concept just 10 weeks prior.

“There’s just something about the performing arts that really connects with us on a deep, almost biological level,” said Graygrove, who is currently one of around 20 drama therapists in Texas and is on her way to receiving her Registered Drama Therapist Credential in 2023. 

Perhaps the best part of Starcatchers is that no one ages out. The team acknowledges that once individuals surpass the age of 21, many disability-friendly programs seem to disappear. Alongside that, they realize the significance of a child being able to work alongside an adult with similar disabilities. Rodenbaugh and Graygrove noted that their Starcatchers veteran, Max, entered the program when he was in middle school and is now in his thirties. 

Photo: TKO Images

Starcatchers wants to keep that sense of community open to all. Younger students are able to view the adults as role models and envision themselves growing into powerful on-stage actors as well. They show that there are no limitations in the arts — just different adaptations that call for unique creativity.

Anyone interested in volunteering with Starcatchers or attending their upcoming performances can find the information through this link. (Preparations for new productions begin in October, so now is the perfect time to reach out!)